What is the moment we are in? When surrounded by perplexity, we reach for history. But then we sharply turn away because the destinations never seem like good ones. History always seems to turn to violence when the going gets tough. Despite recognisable elements re-emerging from our past, this situation is a fresh one. So old remedies will be insufficient to the task.
What is happening? Essentially, the world has become reframed around a populist axis. By ‘populist’, something very precise is meant. Populism juxtaposes a morally pure people with a corrupt elite. The populist promise is to free the people from their chains, unleash their delegitimised worldview (‘why can’t we talk about immigration?’), and restore a true people’s democracy.
Some see this process as a pressure valve whereby the unheard find their voice. Yet, populism proceeds by distortion and caricature. But to criticise populism on that basis somewhat misses the point. It is a form of politics that engages the passions rather than one which seeks enlightenment. Fake news and the like are tactics that lead to a greater truth in this worldview – a truth in which the people are freed from the institutional constraints constructed by corrupt elites. The people are returned to the natural way of being, a sense of anchoring in rooted community or nation. Change is about a return to lost moment; a replanting of a pure culture. Liberals deploy institutional power such as courts, public broadcasting, and constitutional checks and balances to resist but these may be insufficient. Elites tweet while the people Facebook share.
This populist axis is far from new. History is littered with Il Duce figures; as indeed is the present. However, the specific drivers of the reordering of politics around a populist frame are of the economic, cultural, and democratic moment. Three big trends are worth focusing on: a new cultural domain of loss driven by economic change, a politics of dispossession driven by inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity, a new social domain powered by new technologies. These trends intersect and mutually accelerate.
Our first port of call is the intersection of economy and culture. The liberal mindset – a worldview ably confronted by Pankaj Mishra in The Age of Anger who appeared at the RSA yesterday – is more adept at working in aggregates than particulars. In the liberal worldview, the greatest welfare for the greatest number is sufficient, albeit with some adjustments such as for civil and social rights.
And yet, economic change impacts the particular or, as I like to call them, people. The dialogue around these changes is framed around productivity gaps and the like. But the reality of the experience from the human perspective is cultural. As local economies suffer, communities are uprooted, and people’s sense of status, pride and belonging is corroded. Boston in Lincolnshire has mobilised around Brexit. But it had lost its sense of direction and purpose way before East European migrants started arriving. The big failure of the last few decades has been a failure of leadership to understand the people behind the metrics. This goes for local leaders as much as national leaders.
The human dimension has consistently been missed in the range of political economies pursued for the last few decades. This loss of a sense of belonging has only been made worse by the deep inequalities of wealth, opportunity and power that has accompanied it. Liberals debate which direction Gini coefficients are heading and social mobility as if this is a numbers game. It’s not. It’s about human relationships and those who access the right networks and resources and those who increasingly do not. Whether cosmopolitanism, or big business, or high finance, is the target the caricatured targets aren’t that important. Instead, we should see the very sense of dispossession that underlies these narratives. We have a bifurcated politics because we have created a bifurcated world.
So cultural loss and social dispossession are the tinder box. Social technologies are the spark. Suddenly, rapid fire ‘post-truth’ spread by adept communicators of grievance surges reflexive anger in unexpected ways. This is populist democracy in action. The form was actually pioneered in many ways by liberal movements – the Obama movement for instance. However, instead of surging a sense of solidarity reaching towards progress, these technologies are deployed in precisely the opposite way. Liberal shock and outrage is futile in the face of this force.
What then is to be done? Mishra implored ‘compassion’. That’s not a bad starting point as long as we remember that empathy is about seeing someone's world through their eyes not sympathising with how hard their life must be. There is a big challenge as we enter the algorithmic age. How can we resist an even greater bifurcation that we have already seen between the technologically endowed and technologically constrained? Unless, we solve that conundrum then the inequalities, the sense of loss, and the surge of anger will only get worse. More Il Duces will walk through the open door.
Speaking personally, I see the RSA’s role as convening around the ‘how to’ avoid this fate. The ‘how to’ matters and that is why we are engaged in a programme of work around new forms of democracy, inclusive growth, Basic Income, the education system of the future, the importance of heritage to belonging and sense of human connection, and the future of good work and much more besides. Hopefully, we can resist falling into the trap of simply reacting to the populist frame and open up ideas, analysis, new relationships and thinking about how to steer democratic discourse in a different direction. If technology plus a sense of loss equals Trump then we, as a society, have to rewrite the equation. The old liberalism was insufficient to these times. A new worldview is needed – let’s work on it together.
Anthony Painter argues that the roots of the new populism are explicable but instead of reacting to it reflexively, there needs to be greater collective effort to create a convincing alternative worldview.